Skip to main content

Chinua Achebe: The Passing of a Great African Influencer

I woke up this morning to news that Nigeria's prolific author Chinua Achebe had passed. I'm sad, but I'm also grateful - for his life, his work and more importantly, his influence.

Prior to attending Wesley Girls' High School in Cape Coast, I had virtually no idea about what "African literature" was. If you meant the stories submitted by readers to The Mirror, a Saturday weekly in Ghana, then maybe. But if you meant stories that capture the sometimes mundane details of daily life in an African country, complete with the kola nuts, local proverbs, and complexities of traditional and contemporary African life,  then not really.

Then came Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart and Efua Sutherland's The Marriage of Anansewa - and a whole new world was opened up to me. I can't recount the number of times I read Things Fall Apart, it was just that good. Achebe's descriptions of Okonkwo, Unoka and Obierika - some of the main characters - were all too real and inviting. Each character taught something unique and valuable. And let's not forget the somewhat scary, yet hilariously absurd descriptions:
"I am Evil Forest, I am Dry-meat-that-fills-the-moth, I am Fire-that-burns-without-faggots". I mean.
What really did it for me was how he captured the inner struggles of each character, intertwining it within a web of history, tradition, social expectation, individual resolve, experience. In the pages of Achebe's book, I saw glimpses of the life I knew - a complex one, full of transitions, questions, victories, struggles, culture - on both the individual and societal fronts. Things Fall Apart might have been about Nigeria in the pre-colonial era, but it was very present and personal to me. Not to mention the fact that this was (finally) a colonial narration from an African perspective and voice. Two character references which left an impression on me are:
"Do not despair. I know you will not despair. You have a manly and proud heart. A proud heart can survive a general failure because such a failure does not prick its pride. It is difficult and more bitter when a man fails alone." - Unoka to Okonkwo

"But the Ibo people have a proverb that when a man says yes his chi says yes also. Okonkwo said yes very strongly; so his chi agreed." - Narrator
And then there were the proverbs, how can one forget the proverbs:
"Among the Ibo the art of conversation is regarded very highly, and proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten."

"Age was respected among his people, but achievement was revered. As the elders said, if a child washed his hands he could eat with kings." 

"The lizard that jumped from the high iroko tree to the ground said he would praise himself if no one else did."

"When mother-cow is chewing grass its young ones watch its mouth." 

Achebe influenced many, including one of my favorite contemporary African authors: Chimamanda Adichie who I met in 2009. I can't imagine how she must feel. Adichie makes reference to Achebe on numerous occasions, and while their narrations on Nigerian history might differ, they both echoed the same thing: tell your story, speak your truth, bear in mind that it's not the only one. If I were to pinpoint one thing which has greatly influenced African youth today, it would be Adichie's TED talk on the danger of a single story (embedded below). And those words find their roots with Chinua Achebe:

 "If you don't like someone's story, write your own."

"I believe in the complexity of the human story and that there’s no way you can tell that story in one way and say, this is it." 

“It is the storyteller who makes us what we are, who creates history. The storyteller creates the memory that the survivors must have - otherwise their surviving would have no meaning.” 

But that's not all. Achebe's influence extends beyond the literary world. I sent out a tweet asking people when they first encountered Achebe and through which book, and one of my tweeps responded that he read Things Fall Apart at 11 years to impress his father. And his father was impressed, because "at least I was graduating from the Adventures of Tintin to an African writer." The second time around - when he was much older and able to absorb the many themes presented in the book - he got the book's message. Achebe helped forge relationships and lifelong memories.

Nigeria and Africa have indeed lost a great man. But being the great influencer he was, his legacy, work and words live on. Professor Achebe, may you rest in perfect peace.
"Every generation must recognize and embrace the task it is peculiarly designed by history and by providence to perform.” ― Chinua Achebe


Popular posts from this blog

The Untold Stories of Ghana's Kayayo (Market Girls)

Thought I was done blogging for the day -- until I came across this BBC photo feature on Ghana's market girls or "kayayo". When I was back in Ghana, I would occasionally go to the Madina market in Accra with my mum and I remember seeing them every time. I often wondered why they weren't in school, why they were doing what they do and why they didn't bargain how much money was paid them. My mum would lament about their situations and each time she patronized their service she would ask them how come they were doing what they did. Unlike my mum, most patrons of the Kayayo's services are not as considerate and don't think twice about having them carry things twice their weight! This is a very sensitive topic to me, because the way I see it, a twist of fate, and I could have been one. I've been meaning to blog on this issue, but somehow it escaped me. Not about to let that opportunity slip by again. Alors, voila.

Here's a youtube slideshow (by the sam…

Lifestylz GH Interview: Sangu Delle

As part of Lifestylz GH’s interview series, we bring you our premier interview with Sangu Delle.

Profile: Sangu Delle
Sangu Delle is a senior at Harvard University. He was born and raised in Ghana, and is the youngest of five children in a bi-religious family (his father is Catholic while his mum is Muslim). He attended Christ the King Catholic School (CTK) and went on to study at the Ghana International School (GIS) until his O-Levels when he transferred to the Peddie School (a college preparatory school in NJ) on scholarship. His areas of concentration in academics are Economics and African studies, with a particular focus on development.

AspirationsTo be involved in the development of Ghana and Africa at large in some capacity. In the past, he was more involved in non-profit and development work, but has increasingly become active in entrepreneurial and business ventures; a testament to his belief that there should be “less foundations and more entrepreneurs” in Africa. In his own wor…

The Letter Writing Project: Unplanned (Student AGAIN!)

Ciao people! I'm blogging all the way from Bologna, Italy! Beautiful city, interesting experiences so far. This blog was written a couple of days ago and didn't get posted because I got quite self-conscious about what it was about (definitely NOT my grandest moment). But after some thought I decided to post it. I feel it's important to acknowledge both struggles and triumphs, especially if growth is the bottom line objective, and particularly since life does throw us a curve ball from time to time. Alors...I'd say enjoy...but given the subject matter, maybe "I hope this speaks to you in some way" is more appropriate? Here goes..
-- Unplanned
"It isn't what you did in the past that will affect the present. It's what you do in the present that will redeem the past and thereby change the future." - Aleph (Paulo Coelho)
It’s been a week and a day since I arrived in Bologna land, which coincidentally, is the very reason why we have so many foods “Bo…